Center for Social Entrepreneurship

at Middlebury

Reflection Friday with Senior Fellow, Sebastian Kern

by Grant Olcott, Social Entrepreneurship Intern


The combination of friendship and citizenship leads a community to the ideal form of communication: open-minded discussion. Sebastian Kern’s goal as a social entrepreneur is to promote this free exchange of ideas. He finds that people in communities that challenge themselves embrace this ideal. By agreeing and disagreeing with one and other openly, they drive the movement towards truth and progress. They achieve the most change by taking risks and communicating genuinely and deeply with each other.

Sebastian is not critical of the Middlebury community. He has had satisfying learning experiences with his group of friends. However, perhaps that illustrates the problem. As other SE fellows previously expressed in this space, he wants to understand the peculiar tendency for people to atomize themselves into separate ideological cliques. He fears what is lost when people split themselves up. Such division creates comfort zones — areas we dread leaving even when we know there’s something great on the other side, much like how we prefer to remain cooped up indoors during J-Term rather than walk to the athletic center.

Safe spaces could be the overlooked antidote to this phenomenon. To understand their importance, they must be distinguished from comfort zones. As redundant as it sounds, comfort zones emphasize comfort, and safe spaces safety. Comfort is something we as active citizens, friends, and community members could do with less of. It hampers our ability to openly and honestly communicate, and therefore holds us back from the truth. But in order to encourage each other to give up comfort, we must ensure our safety. Only in a safe space can we speak freely. To get there we must practice empathy, cultivate curiosity, and demonstrate respect.

Such a transformation would improve our community. One of Sebastian’s favorite quotes is “Loneliness is the inability to communicate what’s important to you.” Loneliness is essentially a symptom of too much comfort. In safe spaces, people develop the ability to talk openly and become what John Stuart Mill described as “noble and beautiful objects of contemplation.” In this ideal community, no one would feel isolated. Mill’s vision of human beauty would shine through the faces of engaged and active students.

Sebastian once told a professor that he wanted to take classes where he clashes with others. Learning requires communication, and the ideal type involves respecting and listening to alternate viewpoints. This attitude allows one to develop a greater idea of reality. The brightest changemakers live by it. Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway never allows himself to have an opinion on anything that he doesn’t know the other side’s argument better than they do. Whether for self-knowledge or industry expertise, truth cannot be found in an echo chamber.

In order to push towards this vision, Sebastian believes people can start by taking more risks. They can say hi and sit with people they don’t know. Small risk-taking can help assure us that Middlebury is a safe space. Leaving the comfort zone can guide us to our futures and teach us what matters. Sebastian suggested that a vibrant life starts, in a way, where the comfort zone ends. As a community of bright and talented people, Middlebury is the perfect place to engage with others and listen to embrace new ideas.



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